Avoiding Environmental Collapse: A cultural perspective

In December 2017, 25 years after the first call, over 15,000 scientists from 184 countries published “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A second notice.” Their message is straightforward: If we do not dramatically change our present trajectory, we will experience catastrophic biodiversity loss and widespread human misery. Meanwhile, as expressed by Pölzler (2015), “we consume as much as we always did, drive as much as we always did, and eat as much meat as we always did.” Most citizens recognise climate change and sustainability as important issues but very few are ready to engage in any form of ameliorative action (European Commission, 2009). In fact, research into climate inaction reveals that belief and concern about climate change is a weak predictor of efforts to adopt environmentally-friendly behaviour (Fu et al., 2015; European Commission, 2009; Gifford & Chen, 2016). Structural changes are important in addressing the climate crisis, but individuals’ lifestyle choices and political engagement determine to a large extent the cost and degree of climate mitigation (Gifford & Chen, 2016). In light of this, why are individuals reluctant to respond appropriately while being aware of such a threat? Understanding this is crucial in order to develop measures and drive climate action.

Graph displaying rising number of dead zones as well as severe biodiversity loss and overfishing (left to right). Source: William et al., 2017

Psychological research has shown that performing actions prescribed by moral judgements, in spite of conflicting non-moral motives (e.g. convenience, personal pleasure, safety) and mental maladies (e.g. depression, weakness of will, emotional exhaustion) often requires an affective motive (Pölzler, 2015). Affective motivation comes from intuitive emotions associated with a situation (Tangney & Mashek, 2007). For example, empathy and compassion compel us to act out of concern for another’s well-being. Feelings of disgust in response to murder or other violations motivate us to risk our own well-being to prevent it.

In a recent review, Gifford (2011) classifies psychological barriers to climate action into seven categories; limited cognition about the problem, ideological world-views that collide with pro-environmental behaviour, comparisons with other people, sunk costs and behavioural momentum, disbelief or mistrust toward experts and authorities, perceived risks of change, and positive but insufficient behaviour change. Whilst some of these psychological barriers can be attributed to inherent properties of the human psyche, in my mind it is misguided to interpret them in isolation. If we are to help people remove them, we must examine the cultural context in which they arise.

Culture can be regarded as “an amalgam of values, meanings, conventions and artefacts that constitute daily social realities” (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Recent advances in neuroscience studies reveal that cultural influence stretches from emotion and motivation to attention, arithmetic processing, and visual perception (Han et al., 2016). The cross-cultural difference in self-conception, that between individualistic and collectivist, has been shown to shape emotional and cognitive processes which in turn determine individual attitudes and behaviours (Han et al., 2016; Moorman et al., 1995). In the context of climate change, these divergent views of the self appear to profoundly influence the ways in which people relate to the planet and take climate-friendly action; namely, individuals with individualistic orientations were: less inclined to believe that human activities cause environmental problems, assume a low-carbon lifestyle, and engage in pro-environmental action (Mccarty & Shrum, 2001; Semenova, 2015). A cornerstone of Western culture is its individualism; the self is defined as an independent entity with little to no connectedness with other selves. Success is measured much more by personal achievement and standing out from the crowd than by establishing a harmonious relationship with others and nature. These cultural values produce individuals that prioritise pursuit of personal goals, and are unwilling to give up harmful habits and self-serving financial investments. Is it really any wonder that in a society where self-orientation and a “why should I change if they don’t?” attitude is the norm, social comparison obstructs positive change?

To accompany our culture of the self comes our individualistic economic philosophy, broadly referred to as Neoliberalism. Its ideological foundation promotes income inequality by rewarding those who are already wealthy and reducing the welfare state. Most of us cannot fathom the ins and outs of the global financial system, yet we are aware of its unpredictability. The 2008 financial crisis gave insight into the of the dangers of an economy based on fictitious capital and the dream of future growth. This system, based on economic theory, is legitimised because of its rational ‘scientific’ foundation. It is of course logically flawed to infer that this implies that all rationally justified systems and philosophies are precarious and unfair, and that scientists and policymakers are untrustworthy. Individual emotion and motivation is certainly important in determining the extent to which fear and skepticism limit environmental support. However, mistrust of experts and authorities and high-risk perceptions must be understood in the context of a society of cut-throat competition if we are to stop them from standing in the way of climate action.

“If man lives under conditions which are contrary to his nature and to the basic requirements for human growth and sanity, he cannot help reacting; he must either deteriorate and perish or bring about conditions which are more in accordance with his needs.”

Eric Fromm, The Sane Society

The World Health Organisation notes that by 2020, depression will be the second leading disease in the world (World Health Organisation, 2017). In Western industrialised societies, the rate of depression has doubled with each successive generational cohort and the average age of onset is now 14 compared to 30 three decades ago (Hidaka, 2012). The low success rate of antidepressants is indicative that brain chemistry alone does not suffice to explain this epidemic. Individualistic models of mind have led to the medicalisation of disorders of social origin; in this case it seems highly plausible that it is society–not serotonin–that is responsible for this widespread melancholy. Consumerist culture creates false expectations of happiness and fulfilment through unrestricted material consumption. In the meantime, social ties have eroded, and community support, levels of trust, and meaningful relationships have plummeted (Hidaka, 2012). Human needs for relatedness, belonging and transcendence are neglected, and to some the world simply loses credibility. What research into climate inaction identifies as “discredance,” “environmental numbness,” and “low perceived-self efficacy” are plainly manifestations of a prevalent sentiment of powerlessness and apathy.

Image of consumerism depicted in artistic critique. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/30751209926073356/

According to Lycan (1986) humans have an inherent disposition to morality and only a ‘steady diet of hard drugs, or some other very powerful alienating force’ could silence our moral intuitions. From my point of view it is our culture that, by putting the individual self at the front and center of our consciousness, alienates us from one another and from nature, thereby inhibiting our affective motive to protect our environment and those that will be affected by its degradation.  Thus, in order to effectively mitigate climate change, we need more than technological innovation, sustainable businesses, and competitive advantages of the circular economy. We must restructure our economic system, shift away from individualism and a culture based on competition and consumerist values, and perpetuate changes towards one that promotes equity and cooperation. This would encourage us to value our attendance to societal and environmental duties, as well as personal achievement and self-expression.


European Commission (2009). Europeans’ Attitudes Towards Climate Change. Brussels: European Commission.

Fu J., Han S., Zhang W., Liu Z. (2015). Status analysis and policy suggestions for public participation in energy saving: based on 2100 questionnaire surveys. Chin. Mkt. 22 167–169. 10.13939/j.cnki.zgsc.2015.34.167

Gifford RD, Chen AKS (2016). Why aren’t we taking action? Psychological barriers to climate-positive food choices. Climatic Change.140(2):165–178. doi:10.1007/s10584-016-1830-y

Gifford R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. Am. Psychol. 66 290–302. 10.1037/a0023566

Han, S., & Humphreys, G. (2016). Self-construal: a cultural framework for brain function. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 10-14.

Hidaka B. (2012). Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence. J Affect Disord. 140(3):205–14. 10.1016/j.jad.2011.12.036

Lycan, W. (1986). Moral facts and moral knowledge. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 24, 79–94. doi:10.

Markus H. R., Kitayama S. (1991). Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion,and motivation. Psychol. Rev. 98 224–253. 10.1037/0033-295X.98.2.224

Mccarty J. A., Shrum L. J. (2001). The influence of individualism, collectivism, and locus ofcontrol on environmental beliefs and behavior.

Moorman R. H., Blakely G. L. (1995). Individualism-collectivism as an individual difference predictor of organizational citizenship behavior.

Pölzler T. (2015). Climate change inaction and moral nihilism. Ethics Policy Environ. 18 202–214. 10.1080/21550085.2015.1070488

Ripple W.J., Wolf C, Newsome T.M., Galetti M., Alamgir M., Crist E., Mahmoud M.I., Laurance W.F. (2017). 15,364 scientist signatories from 184 countries, World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. BioScience. Volume 67. Issue 12. Pages 1026–1028. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix125

Semenova M. (2015). Individualism Vs. Collectivism: Effect on our Pro-environmental Behaviour. Master’s thesis. New Zealand: University of Otago.

Tangney JP, Stuewig J, & Mashek DJ (2007). Moral emotions and moral behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 345–372. 10.1146/annurev.psych.56.091103.070145

World Health Organisation. (2017). Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates.

3 thoughts on “Avoiding Environmental Collapse: A cultural perspective

  1. Hi Danielle,
    Thanks for this great blogpost! I have always been interested in the psychological reasoning behind people’s actions, that we know harm the environment, and consequently ourselves, and yet we do it anyways. Here, you give a good overview of some of the arguments behind this.
    This system change you are talking about seems to be a win-win situation – good for our mental health, good for the environment. This got me thinking about the lecture we attended yesterday and talking about the nomadic way of living the hunter-gatherers have. I used to think that sounded like a horrible way to live (no instagram! no soft bed to sleep in! no Spar! no coffee!), but as we all have probably experienced at AUC, the constant need and supply of information, money, technology etc. can really take a toll on our mental health. I am quite inclined to agree with your argument of shifting away from the individualist and consumerist culture.
    Then my question is – how? This would mean changing the entire economic system the world is built on and change quite a lot of cultural aspects in many places. I know this is a very difficult question to answer, but maybe you have any idea of where to start?


  2. Hey Danielle,
    I like your blogpost a lot! It is very interesting to see you connect three concepts (climate action, mental health and the economic capitalist system) that are seemingly uncorrelated, but have a significant impact on one another. In continuation of Emilie’s response, I am wondering what refreshing insights you may have on this, considering we need climate action rather urgently. Do you think that, say, transforming our cultural environment can have any short-term impact? If yes, how? If not, do you think this change is ever going to occur in our world? I understand that this is a complicated question with a lot more aspects to it, but I would love to hear from you!


  3. Hey Danielle, I thought you’re views on the intersection of culture and environmental behavior is quite interesting. I was especially struck by how to describe the problems of the “self at the center of ones consciousness” and the relationship between the self and nature in a philosophical sense. I think there is a more physical component to it. I think the Neo-liberalism you describe also includes a form of neo-liberal urbanism, where humans don’t come in nature enough to give it really any meaning. The system tears us apart from each other, but perhaps also from each other. I have once read that adults that are relatively environmentalist often have had meaningful experiences with nature as a child. I wonder if the ‘collectivism’ that you advocate should be made even broader to a point that it becomes ‘holism’, being part and having strong relations with the whole world.
    For example, people who are quite literally closer to nature, like some Indigenous Australians who live in central Australia, have a completely different outlook on the borders of ‘the self’, the community and nature, ways that seem less consumptive, degrading and depressing. We could perhaps learn from this. I think what I am advocating for is that we should foster relationships between humans themselves and then encourage those humans also be truly ‘part of the world/living nature’ in that sense to prevent what you so accurately describe as “environmental numbness”. I guess my first suggestion would be to strongly encourage humans to have more meaningful experiences in the sublimity of nature, which could perhaps be a very small first step towards more collectivism/less environmental numbness. I know it seems a bit trivial, but I still wonder what you think of my suggestion!


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